It’s hard enough making dinner, but a trio of Kansas City chefs did it onstage Monday night during the Children’s Center for the Visually Impaired’s second annual Food Fight. Howard Hanna (chef and co-owner of The Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange), John McClure (chef/owner of Starker’s Restaurant) and Charles d’Ablaing (Chaz on the Plaza) had to work with such potentially discordant ingredients as scallops, quail, fiddlehead ferns, sea beans, asparagus and black quinoa.
And those were the ones they knew about ahead of time. The secret ingredient—Savoy spinach from local farmer Thane Palmberg, harvested that morning while still dusted with snow—wasn’t announced until after the chefs took the stage at the National World War I Museum at the Liberty Memorial. That’s spinach in all three courses. Prepared in one hour. Then plated and presented to a panel of judges—myself; avid cook and wine collector Paul McGraw; and Andrew Sloan, chef and co-owner of Room 39. The fourth judging slot was filled by Geordie Pollock of The Capital Grille, after his father won a heated bidding contest for it.
It was an impressive showing from all three, and wicked hard to judge, but Hanna ultimately came out on top.
Hanna started with a scallop crudo—raw, sliced scallops served on a bed of spinach with a sprinkling of sliced spinach root, sugar snap pea pods and sea beans, with a drizzle of fragrant, hot Thai lemongrass and chili oil that was meltingly good, enough so that I wish I’d hidden the rest of my portion under the table for later. He followed with spinach-stuffed quail, wrapped with another layer of spinach and pancetta and served with a quinoa cake. Dessert was a spinach-flecked madeleine (a recipe I’d love to have) with whipped Mascarpone cheese, candied pancetta and blueberry sauce. Mmmm.
McClure riffed on a classic for his starter with scallops Rockefeller, served with a herby and light green sauce, sauteed spinach, sea beans, sugar snaps and asparagus. Next up was satisfyingly rich and crunchy cornmeal fried quail with quinoa polenta and spring ragu that I was again sorry to see get cleared away after just a bite. (No worries, though. I’ll make up for it soon with a full-size plate of McClure’s fried chicken at Starker’s.) He finished with spinach churros and a chili-infused hot chocolate. Finally used to the pace of things—judging had to move fast, so the dishes still waiting to be presented didn’t grow cold—I wolfed the churros, thinking this was the way to get kids to eat spinach, and then greedily clung to my cup of chocolate as plates were whisked away.
D’Ablaing’s cooking was similarly inspired. Perfectly sauteed scallops with braised fiddleheads sitting atop a mushroom and spring veg ragu. Quinoa-breaded quail. And then his dessert…diced strawberries and halved blueberries, served with a black pepper and vanilla bean sabayon, garnished with julienned sugar snap peas and a fried, sugared spinach leaf so good that I’m still thinking about it.
So, the food was fantastic. But it was about more than the food. CCVI made a splash with last year’s Food Fight, and it again quickly sold out this year. The featured chefs were good-natured with the crowd and each other—d’Ablaing shared his fryer with McClure, extra hands passed plates, and plenty of laughter. Ted Habiger of Room 39 and a participant in last year’s Food Fight served as honorary chairman. 801 Chop House (voted the crowd favorite), Baby Cakes, bluebird Bistro, Catering by Design, The Classic Cup, Lon Lane’s Inspired Occasions, RA Sushi Bar and The Webster House provided tastings.
Dozens of donors provided goods and services for the live and silent auctions. Jim Cooley from Gomer’s on 39th Street selected bottles for the Blind Wine table (all wines were wrapped, you got to pick one for $20 or three for $50) and matched the wines to the chef’s courses. And, of course, there were all those who bought tickets to attend, and then went on to contribute more energy and funds throughout the evening.
Every seven minutes, someone in the U.S. becomes visually impaired. It’s CCVI’s mission to help those among them who are children. I’m awed by how many people back that mission, and helped make this event a success, and that they invited me to be a small part of it. I’m already looking forward to next year.